Grappling with the idea that your son or daughter might be struggling with substance abuse can be extraordinarily hard to deal with. No parent wants to believe that their child is developing an unhealthy relationship to drugs and alcohol, but unfortunately, sometimes this is just a matter of fact. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) reports that approximately 5% of adolescents (age 12-17) suffer from some kind of substance abuse disorder. Parents need to know that number hikes up to nearly 16.3% for the 18 to 25 demographic. Despite the fact that nearly 1 in 20 teens still under the care of a parent or legal guardian will require some treatment, many parents will turn the cheek for as long as possible, sometimes enabling their loved one right into the depths of full-blown addiction. As is the case for most progressive diseases, early detection is key. Timely intervention and proficient treatment methods can save both you and your loved one years of misery and fear.
Sure, conceding that your child needs help is incredibly hard. Words like addict and alcoholic have developed an unbelievable stigma, particularly in the midst of an explosive opioid epidemic that is rattling news cycles, hospitals, the senate floor and everything in between. No one wants their child branded with these labels, but quite frankly, blissful ignorance is not an option. Sweeping the problem under the rug will not make it go away. Quite the opposite in fact. For those struggling with substance abuse, this is not “just a phase”.
They won’t “just grow out of it”
That said, I’d like to talk a little bit about the nuances of addiction. Parents need to know what to look for and being armed with the facts is paramount to playing an effective role in the cessation of your child’s addiction. So, from a birds-eye view, what should you know?
As I briefly alluded to earlier, addiction is progressive. Granted, there is no biological markers like those of Cancer or Parkinson’s, but there’s no shortage of empirical or anecdotal evidence to bolster the claim. Although the disease is largely cumulative, meaning the various aspects—psychological, biological, and environmental—largely build upon and play off of one another, there are a couple of different areas to watch for in terms of progression. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll narrow them down to frequency, quantity, substance, and affect. Let me explain what I mean by these.
Frequency—What may begin as harmless experimentation can get out of hand gradually. It should come as no surprise that full-blown addiction doesn’t manifest in a single day. Part of what makes addiction so difficult to identify, both for the afflicted individual and those around them, is how easily justified it can become in a relative context. For instance, an everyday drinker did not just decide suddenly to drink everyday. What may have began as a weekend luxury gradually seeps into the weekdays, rationalized with a simple “what’s one more day?”. So if your child appears to be intoxicated on an increasingly frequent basis, this is a red flag that should not be ignored.
Quantity—Much like the premise outlined above in terms of frequency, the actual quantity of a substance ingested can follow a very similar trajectory. However, unlike frequency, the amount of alcohol or drugs that your child is abusing can be a little harder to gauge. There are a few ways to get your finger on the pulse in terms of quantity. What parents need to know is that the most commonly abused drugs amongst teens are alcohol and marijuana. While harder drugs may very well be in the picture, they are not nearly as prevalent. In an ideal world, no one would drink or smoke marijuana (where legal) until 21, but we all know this is not the case. High school is a time notorious for experimentation and despite our best efforts as parents, this may be an immutable fact. All of this to say that if you notice that the faint smell of alcohol after a Saturday night with friends is turning into slurred speech or blackouts, there could be sufficient cause for concern. Beyond that, if you are finding drugs or paraphernalia around the house, be aware of how much. If the drawer which once housed a half-smoked joint is now home to a sandwich bag of pot, it might be time for a bigger conversation.
Substance—Although not always the case, the particular substance that is being abused may evolve over time. I emphasize “not always” because there is no shortage of people who solely abuse alcohol or marijuana, both of which can cause immense damage on their own. Nevertheless, it is not uncommon for those with substance abuse disorder to “graduate” to harder drugs. These drugs vary symptomatically, with drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine producing very different effects from those of opiates or hallucinogens. If you suspect that your child may be using other drugs familiarize yourself with the effects and symptoms and watch for paraphernalia like needles, foil, hallowed pens and pipes. The myth that marijuana is a “gateway drug” which invariably leads to drug addiction has long been touted, but looking past the causal fallacy, the large majority suffering from addiction started from weed or alcohol. In other words, marijuana doesn’t necessarily lead to addiction, but addiction often starts there.
Affect—Unlike the other benchmarks of addiction which deal primarily with the substance, this aspect addresses behavior. Beyond the realm of physical dependence, drugs and alcohol can have a substantial and noticeable effect on the behavior of your child. As opposed to progressive illnesses of a purely biological nature, addiction carries a large psychological component. Some drugs which cause catastrophic damage to the lives of addicts possess little potential for physical addiction, but can precipitate the same downfall displayed by those looking for a “fix”. Adolescents with a particular affinity for drugs and alcohol will often display erratic behavior, appearing easily irritable, distant, overly-energetic or lethargic. Other common traits include lying, manipulating and stealing. Of course, you know your child better than anyone, but if you notice drastic changes it may merit some investigation.
Still, knowing what to look for is only half of the battle. Having worked in treatment for some time and becoming closely familiarized with the family dynamics surrounding addiction, I’ve come to know that even the most blatant signs and symptoms can go unaddressed, almost as if intentionally. This phenomenon, as I’m sure you’ve heard of in various contexts, is denial.
Don’t ignore the signs of addiction and substance abuse
Families will often enable their son or daughter even as the signs of a progressive substance abuse disorder become apparent. The word enabling is definitely loaded, but it takes many shapes and forms. It does not have to look like an endless flow of money or an open house for underage drinking and illicit drug use. The simple act of turning cheek to the signs as they become increasingly obvious is an act of enabling. Understandably, no parent wants to admit or face the fact that their son or daughter is in dire need of attention, but as stated earlier, pretending it’s not happening will not solve the problem. Rarely does it look like complete ignorance to the circumstances. Most of the time it is a middle ground, a consistent minimization of the actions of the child. Bad circumstance. Wrong place, wrong time. Unsavory friends. You name it.
Unfortunately, addiction doesn’t offer the luxury of stagnancy—if it is not being arrested, then it can only be moving forward. This is why an honest appraisal of your child’s situation and a sense of urgency is of utmost importance. Many parents need to know, the initial honesty required to truly admit that their child is suffering from substance abuse can be devastating. This will sometimes perpetuate a process of denial that can last months or even years. Depending on your child’s stage of addiction or the drugs which they are exposed to, this just may not be time you have to spare.
The red flags explored above pertain mostly to the actual behaviors centered around the using of drugs and alcohol, but substance abuse tends to wrap all aspects of the users life in its grips. As a parent, there is no shortage of other strange behaviors that can accompany a struggle with drugs which can become glaringly obvious. Anomalous patterns such as dismissed performance in school or sports for children who are traditionally academically or athletically inclined can be a good indicator. Vague reports of social interaction or inconsistent stories about one‘s whereabouts often crop up in tandem with addiction. Most commonly, an abrupt shift in social circles can be a tell-tale sign of negative behavioral patterns.
While the patterns outlined above are common for teens falling into drinking or drug use, they are not the only possibility. Exploration of drugs and alcohol can be socially motivated, but there is a large emotional component which can be triggered in all types of individuals. Despite the typical depiction of the alcoholic as surly and down-trodden, the disease of alcoholism affects all sorts of people, from high powered businessmen to police officers, and the same can be said for children. Just because your child is proficient in academic or social areas does not mean they are not necessarily developing an unhealthy relationship to substances. All of this to say, if you suspect your child might be falling into addiction, do not allow their performance in outside areas to serve as a disqualifying factor. There is no shortage of overdoses at Ivy League colleges.
So what should you do after coming to the realization that your child may need help?
Searching for treatment options is no easy task and as is the case with most services, some are awful while others are excellent. Depending on the severity of the substance abuse, it may merit different approaches. However, one of the most important aspects that should be considered when dealing with adolescents and young adults is a successful transition back into everyday life. So many facilities offer 30, 60 or 90 days of treatment after which the resident is abruptly returned to the environment from which they came. Getting sober at a young age is hard enough given the culture of drinking and partying through the teens and twenties. This is why an emphasis on community and reassimilation is paramount to long-term success. The ability to build a solid social foundation as well as a sense of confidence that diminishes the emotional draw towards substances has proven to be extremely effective in adolescent treatment.
If you have even the slightest concern for your child, do not hesitate to reach out. Ask questions. Play it safe. There is nothing to lose by consulting outside resources if there is even a slight suspicion, but those who wait could pay the ultimate price. When it comes to addiction, ignorance is not bliss.